In the first grade, I sat on Ms. Spuches’ infamous tooth chair as I tried to flatten my large Afro with my fingers. “I want my hair to be straight like yours,” I said to Diana Ross, at the time one of the mothers of a classmate and friend. Her hair wasn’t exactly straight, but mine wasn’t either. In my eyes, it was worse—a thick tightly-coiled Afro that I would have given the world to change. By the fifth grade, with my fresh perm, I often voiced that my nose was too large and that when I was of age, I would be getting surgery to alter the size.
Thankfully, my God-given brown-skinned wide nose is still in its rightful place. However, as I reflect on some of the most difficult years of my life, the time I spent in a predominantly white affluent Jewish New York City private school, I am dumbfounded by our society’s relentless fascination with Gossip Girl and its now-staged reality version, NYC Prep.
There are a handful of Black students in each school. Some of us are wealthy like our white counterparts but many of us are not. Some of us live in luxury Manhattan apartments fully equipped with maids as we jet off to our Hampton vacation homes, but most of us do not. Some of our parents have the extraordinary means to spend $30,000 a year for this pristine education, but many of us are on scholarship funneled into these institutions through programs like A Better Chance, Early Steps and Prep for Prep. Our reality is not made for TV as we seldom frequent the same exclusive clubs and restaurants. In certain instances, we travel from outer New York City boroughs into Manhattan; for some, it’s a nearly two-hour commute.
I am grateful for the many opportunities private school afforded me, but during my youth, it taught me to hate myself.
With the installment of Bravo’s reality-series NYC Prep, there has been a swift response of embarrassment from Upper East Side parents as well as the home institutions of some of the teenagers featured on the show, one of which is my old stomping grounds. The show profiles six white teenagers and their lavish lifestyles, in all its excess. It’s safe to say that chickens are coming home to roost. I am grateful for the many opportunities private school afforded me, but during my youth, it taught me to hate myself. For thirteen years, accompanying every stage of my adolescent life, I was an outsider, desperately yearning for what everyone had around me. I learned to be embarrassed of skin tone, hair texture and address. As my white girlfriends went on their first dates, I was constantly met with the rejection of white males from whom I wrongfully sought validation.
“Have you seen it yet?” I asked my girlfriend. “Yea,” she responded. “I only wish we could’ve lived so carefree,” she added. As I started to talk to my friends, many of whom formerly attended these institutions, we all had the same question, “Where are all the black people on NYC Prep?”
Even though our realities are vastly different, they are still thronged with dramatic events. Imagine the life of a little black girl growing up in a predominantly white environment. Naturally most of her friends are white but as she grows older and the realities of race and class start to set in, the very same people who were her friends during her elementary years might pass her on the street without so much as a hello. Envision a beautiful black male, also growing up in this private school environment. He becomes a well-respected teenage fashion model and although he is tormented by the racist remarks consistently made by his peers, he doesn’t speak out in fear of complicating his comfortable social (popular) status, which all but erases his class differential. He consistently confides in the black girl previously mentioned, but their friendship is somewhat secret; he can’t be seen fraternizing with her—social suicide. Or how about a black girl with just as much, if not more, wealth, power and influence as her white counterparts forming a strong black female identity, despite not growing up around black people. Or we could envision a boy, raised in public housing by his mother, consistently allured by the lifestyle of the privileged, all the while never fully understanding that his actions will not be met with the same consequence. Black people represent New York City prep too but Bravo and NBC Universal do not want to invest in our reality.
Because no actual recording is permitted in any of the private schools that the students attend, much is missed. Many students of color attend these institutions not to make friends or engage in mindless frivolity but to get into good colleges. If we feel as though we did not achieve this primary goal by the journey’s end, it is as if we have failed, not only ourselves but also our families.
Rather than introduce new narratives, Bravo perpetuates white standards of beauty and superficial definitions of wealth. We don’t really understand anybody’s reality as the teenagers profiled are clearly coached and the scenarios staged. I challenge the American media to take on the story of students of color in New York City private schools but only if to do it justice. Rather than a reality series plagued with falsified interactions and artificial dialogue, I call for networks to purposefully and passionately script our stories. Sit down with black New York City private school students, both past and present. We have experienced a different reality. We too, have compelling stories to tell, unless of course our realities are too real for America.